Our view: Showdown brewing for St. Louis County Board

The incumbent, in his first term, earned a reputation for being thoroughly prepared, for being tenacious when working on behalf of constituents and for fiscal responsibility.

The incumbent, in his first term, earned a reputation for being thoroughly prepared, for being tenacious when working on behalf of constituents and for fiscal responsibility.

His main challenger this fall is well-known as a gets-things-done community activist and neighborhood leader who's reliable, approachable, knowledgeable and active.

Commissioner Chris Dahlberg and candidate Debbie Isabell Nelson are clear choices to advance from a field of three in the Aug. 14 primary for the St. Louis County Board seat that represents western Duluth's District 3. By picking Dahlberg and Isabell Nelson, voters can assure themselves two solid options, and one heck of a showdown, in the general election on Nov. 6.

"I love the job. I'm passionate about it. I would like a second term," Dahlberg said in an interview this week with the News Tribune editorial board. "I like to say I'm a workhorse and not a show horse. ... I'm working behind the scenes on many issues."

An Army veteran of the Iraq War and a general-practice attorney who runs a law office in Duluth, Dahlberg took a leading role and pushed for solutions last year after a News Tribune investigation uncovered safety concerns in the fast-growing group-home industry.


"It's safety, safety, safety: the safety of the vulnerable adults in the homes, the safety of workers and the safety of the neighborhoods and areas where the homes are located," said Dahlberg, who has a brother with developmental disabilities.

Dahlberg was not part of sexual harassment allegations or charges of cronyism that have dogged the County Board in recent years.

He was part of bold, money-saving moves to privatize the county's assisted-living program and its Chris Jensen Nursing Home. He pushed for a 0 percent budget increase this year because, he said, property owners already faced a tax increase as a result of the state's decision to do away with the homestead tax credit. He supports "responsible mining and timber harvesting," he wrote in a statement to the editorial board.

And he's been known to drop in unannounced at tool houses and elsewhere to gain a new perspective of how things work. In that same spirit, he rode with a snowplow driver during a storm and spent a night shift with a 911 operator during his first term. He treated the operator to spicy teriyaki chicken.

If re-elected, Dahlberg said his second term will be his final term. Staying 20 or 30 years as a career politician "shows arrogance," he said.

Isabell Nelson worked 23 years as a child-care provider, petitioning the county for higher reimbursements and better pay, something that brought more professionalism to the profession. She also was a consultant for and trainer of child-care workers, including those who cared for children with disabilities and special needs.

She started gaining public notoriety in the early 2000s by speaking out about failing sewer and water pipes in her Morgan Park neighborhood. She sued the city; then she worked with the city, neighbors and others to get new lines installed. The $12 million project was the largest infrastructure investment in Duluth at the time.

More recently, Isabell Nelson founded, organized and ran a citywide crime-prevention and safety initiative with the Duluth Police Department. She packed monthly meetings by focusing on different topics.


She worked at Neighborhood Housing Services for six and a half years as a neighborhood coordinator. She brought together volunteers and did other work to help revitalize some of Duluth's poorest neighborhoods.

She helped lead Duluth's western neighborhoods through the city's massive comprehensive planning process.

And last year she was on the Mayor's Tourism Task Force, bringing a community and neighborhood perspective.

Like Dahlberg she supports responsible mining, she said, although she doesn't consider it, really, a County Board issue.

"I love pulling people together," she said in her own interview this week with the News Tribune editorial board. "People are looking for someone they know and trust. ... I have a track record of getting things done. (And) I've long been an advocate for folks in these neighborhoods."

A third candidate on the Aug. 14 primary ballot is Dennis Szymialis. He refused to meet with the News Tribune editorial board. He said the newspaper's editorial stand on mining didn't jibe with his campaign.

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